One Upon a Thames
Written and directed by Victoria Cassimo from an original idea by Cassimo
Leicester Square Theatre
This modern fairytale combines music, mime, dance, video and sand animation in an imaginatively odd retelling of the sad story of the Bottlenose Whale which was found swimming in the Thames in January 2006. The only dialogue comes from an actress in the audience playing a young French woman who first reported seeing the whale and in video interviews with a news team who never manage to be in the right place to see it for themselves.
Onec Upon a Thames opens with Cassimo, the Storyteller, hovering near a table as though wondering what to do and then taking up position behind it, beginning his tale not in words but by drawing pictures with sand which he pours onto a light box, the image projected onto a large on-stage screen. As his hands move through the sand or precisely place little piles of it we see a girl sitting on a bench, another girl's face in close up, a boy's face with her and then, as they are swept away, they form other images: a boat, the wind, the London skyline, a girl looking out of a window and then the whale in the Thames.
Cassimo deftly creates these pictures with considerable skill but its dramatic value lies in the technique rather than the content and this is a storyteller working at one remove from his audience. His story line seems only to present some characters who, the whale apart, don't match up with what follows.
When the screen is whipped away and the lights come up on a set that suggests a wharf and Thames bridges, the storyteller exits over one side of the wharf and a nattily dressed figure in a striped frock coat appears over the other. This is mime artist Svetlana Biba who is soon recognizable as a strutting London pigeon, though you'll never see one in life striped gold and brown. It is a very clever performance..
Long-limbed and graceful, Rachel Riveros then dances on in trailing blue like some naiad of the river. She also plays the flute. It took me a very long time to realise that she was the whale. Whales, I am sure, are very graceful in the water and the Thames whale was young and female but if you didn't know the story you would never guess that was what she was supposed to be.
We later get another female character in a slinky red dress who sings. I am not sure whether there were actually words, I certainly couldn't understand them, but performer Phildel has a lovely voice. Apart from being malevolent (she seemed to work some evil magic on both whale and pigeon and she broke the whale's flute), I have no idea what she represented. The programme calls her Siren of the City and says she is trapped for lack of love but how she fits into the story I couldn't follow..
Reality emerged in the girl along the row from me (Leonore Santville) dialing 999 and phoning in her sighting of the whale and whom, on video, a TV reporter can't shut up and who, in another video interview with a man (Derek Mayo), adds more rather forced comedy. Later there is actual footage of the real rescue attempt by British Divers Marine Life Rescue, although it is almost impossible to see what is actually going on and you can only see the whale if you look very carefully..
Sadly the whale did not survive and here we see a pigeon pulling on the whale's legs to try to drag it back to the sea, something that my imagination found to difficult to take. The music by Cassimo and Phildel, much of which seems to be variations on a six-note theme, three rising and three descending, is somewhat repetitive and soporific and perhaps I missed something that would have made this piece of whimsy gel as ecological tragedy. Almost all its parts are quite well done, especially the pigeon and the sand animation, but as a whole they fail to come together to tell a story that is comprehensible.
Ends 17th October 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton